Mohammed Maskati: "Digital security is still considered something cool and fancy and not taken seriously"

By Leila Nachawati Rego Publisher: APCNews     Tunis,

Mohammed Maskati at IGMENA, Tunis. 2 October 2016. Photo by Leila Nachawati RegoMohammed Maskati at IGMENA, Tunis. 2 October 2016. Photo by Leila Nachawati Rego
Mohammed al-Maskati is a renowned Bahraini human rights defender and founder of the Bahrain Youth Society for Human Rights. He works as a digital security consultant for Front Line Defenders, a human rights organisation founded in 2001 to protect human rights defenders at risk. He has worked with a diversity of international organisations working in the Middle East and North Africa in developing their policy and guidelines.

APC’s Leila Nachawati Rego met with Maskati during the Internet Governance in the Middle East and North Africa (IGMENA) Summit that took place in Tunis, 30 September-2 October.

APCNews: As a human rights defender with an extensive background in internet rights, what outcomes would you expect from a space like the IGMENA Summit?

Mohammed al-Maskati: Sharing experiences is the most important outcome. Meeting each other, learning from each other, knowing that the work we do and the threats we face are shared by others, finding ways to work together is key. Developing regional strategies and joint action while being aware of the different contexts and developing strategies that respond to these differences.

APCNews: What are the trends in internet rights in the region? Is Bahrain an extreme case in terms of these trends?

MM: Yes, it is an extreme case of trends that can be seen throughout the region. In Bahrain, the situation is very tense and censorship is the rule. The Parliament is part of the government, political parties have stopped working (see Al Wafaq), others are afraid to speak freely. The law is constantly used to justify that what bloggers write is illegal. Most critical speech falls under the “insulting the King” or “threatening national security/unity” categories. We actually have very few criminals in prison – the space is taken by political prisoners.

In terms of social media, we are now seeing an increase in persecution against Twitter users. Last year a Twitter user was arrested, his account taken by the Ministry of Interior, he couldn’t inform his contacts, so the government caught other Twitter users through his network. Twenty people were arrested within two days for “insulting the King”, including some women activists arrested after raising the issue of political detainees in the country.

At the same time, I see a positive change in the fact that there seems to be more awareness of the risks and risk assessment in the region. For a long time, we did not have risk assessment models. Now many organisations, including Front Line, have their own model for our missions – in our case, it has also been exported to others. “Who do we want to protect?” is the first thing to ask ourselves before developing specific models for diverse contexts and situations.

However, even though people have better knowledge of digital security, it is still considered something cool and fancy, and often not taken seriously. I have seen people attend digital security trainings and then years later they keep using the same tools, training after training. This is very irresponsible, it is not just about you, but about others you are working with (including victims of repression and torture). I know this blogger who was caught the one day he did not use his VPN, because “the internet was too slow.” We need to work more in changing perceptions. If you don’t implement what you are learning, you are putting others at risk.

APCNews: Regarding work with human rights and internet rights organisations, what are your biggest challenges and how do you counter them?

MM: The biggest issue in working with human rights organisations who are based in MENA is corruption. When you are given a lot of money without monitoring and evaluation, this encourages corruption, so follow-up is key. I remember one time I brought external hard drives for an Iraqi organisation and when I visited three months later and asked about them, if the drives were useful, no one knew where they had gone, there was not a single one there. They had been sold by the former organisation representative. So anyone working with organisations on the ground should be aware and include follow-up and monitoring as part of the work cycle. It is a fundamental part to ensure that we won’t encourage corruption.

Another problem is our culture of censorship and surveillance. We are used to our privacy being violated and we tend to replicate this in our organisational work, even if well-intentioned. Some human rights organisations use censorship, they filter websites to prevent employees from using Facebook or Twitter during their work time. It is much better to advise and set guidelines with your staff than to filter websites, instead of censoring your own employees while you promote freedom of expression.

APCNews: Tell us more about the strategies you are working on, the way forward, and how to help.

MM: When it comes to international investment in the region, there is so much capacity building, too much is spent on this without real outcome, so I suggest we shift the focus. We need to strategise our capacity building better and see if it really is effective. Again, training is not effective without follow-up, which international organisations often don’t do. For Front Line Defenders this is a priority now, but it wasn’t so years ago, we just learned how important it is in the process. You make trainees work with a goal in mind and then you visit. We now have less trainings (three in a year for MENA), we do a visit within three months, and ask that the information learned is shared with others within this period of time.

Regarding research, we are quite happy about the impact our Digital Protection Magazine is having. We release it every Wednesday, summarising all the news and updates on challenges, tools, etc. Today Signal is good, tomorrow it may be bad, so keeping ourselves updated, and our partners and networks, is key.

Research and evidence-based work is very important in MENA, especially because we don’t have a culture of research, we are not taught to research, we are taught to copy-paste, even for academic theses. From countries like Iran to Iraq, Egypt or Morocco, there is no research habit.

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